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Life Inside

Prison Is Already Scary. It's Even Worse During a Blackout

As darkness fell, nerves got rattled and rumors spread.

I was sitting on my bed listening to Speedy, who lives several bunks down, tell another one of his tall tales. He'd done prison time in Ohio, Michigan and Texas, according to him, each time for murder charges and each time day for day—one day off for good behavior for every day served. And then the lights went out.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

At first, no one thought anything of it. Prison is a dark place, and the lights go out all the time. In a minute or so, the back-up generators would kick on.

This time, they didn't.

After several minutes of confusion, the officer working the dorm made the announcement that we would be in the dark for a while. Around an hour later, stories began to circulate about someone noticing a flash and then hearing a sharp pop. It turned out that some electrical wiring caught fire outside the prison fence-line. We heard that it shouldn't take the power company any more than a few hours to fix it. This was late Saturday afternoon.

As the night wore on, we did anything we could to occupy ourselves. There were a lot of card games, people playing dominoes and reading. Then it began to grow dark outside and unbearable inside the cramped confines of the honor dorm, a unit reserved for inmates with good behavior records. When you’re locked down with nearly 50 men—with no lights and without the luxury of TV and other leisure items—things can quickly become tense. From across the hall came stories of people claiming to see officers running to other dorms, and when pill call came—where prisoners are taken out of their wing to take medication—it was under armed escort. The officers stopped laughing about the lights being out and began huddling together. Any information exchange between inmates and officers came to an abrupt halt.

It's hard to sleep when everyone in the wing knows something is up but not exactly what. Conversations between friends became debates, and through the night, whispers could be heard, plots hatched and old wrongs reevaluated beneath the shadow of darkness and out of sight of the now-useless surveillance cameras mounted every 20 feet. The dark offered ample opportunity for some to find safety and companionship in the arms of another without the prying eyes in the sky. Others took the pitch black as an opportunity to take whatever they wanted from those they felt wouldn't resist.

The third-shift officers arrived in full riot gear, camo green uniforms, tasers, pepper spray, and head-mounted lights. Counts were conducted in silence and questions were answered with shouts of "comply or else." Everyone was on edge.

I listened to my battery-powered radio and silently prayed I wouldn't hear any news about the prison. I'd already survived one riot and didn't need to suffer through another one. Eventually, I found sleep.

The next day, Easter Sunday, we awoke to an announcement and a posted memo: The news was alerted to the blackout, the prison website had been updated to reflect there would be no visits, and we would be in the dark until further notice.

Then came the stories from those who'd left the honor dorm for pill call. Some said the staff had begun to call what was happening elsewhere in the prison “The Purge,” after the dystopian film in which crime is legal in America one night per year. Overnight, we were told, as many as 20 people checked in to the infirmary with bruises, busted lips and black eyes. We heard rumors that several had been shipped to the hospital, and that a few men had even been raped. Normally, anything I hadn't witnessed with my own eyes would be considered yard gossip, or more appropriately, labeled “”—just another piece of useless information to be discarded. Only there was no denying the change that had come over the staff or the atmosphere of caged agitation that could be seen in every eye or heard in every voice, inmate and officer alike.

As I sat safe and surrounded by people who, like myself, had signed up for the honor dorm as a way to escape the noise and day-to-day drama of general population, inmates in other units—mostly older men who wore the label of rat, or worse, "chomo" (child molester)—were apparently being subjected to assaults, both physical and sexual. As the stories poured in, many of us in the honor dorm felt conflicted by our status. A few, like Speedy, felt the need to mouth off to the staff and threaten everyone with a sample of what we heard all those guys in the other dorms were getting. I just sat back and watched for signs of things getting out of hand. More than a few of us voiced disdain toward anyone who felt the need to target the weak.

It took another day for power to be restored, and several more days until life at the prison was back to normal. Some officers jokingly continued to refer to the blackout as “The Purge,” re-telling the story of a man who had allegedly been beaten with not just fists but a canned good in a laundry bag and a lock fastened to a belt before having a television broken over his head—and being urinated on. It was intended as a cautionary tale for those who felt the need to touch children.

I’ve seen the man who they say was assaulted. He was almost 70 and shuffled his feet when he walked—clomp, clomp, clomp. Whether he deserved what happened to him is pure conjecture. I do my best not to judge anyone’s sins. When I asked if the guy made it or not, I was answered with a mix of laughs, sneers, yeses and nos.

Not everyone felt the "purge" was a complete success: Some staff complained they didn't get the opportunity to use their pepper spray, and some inmates still had a few enemies.

All I know is I never used to have an issue with being in the dark, but now I question the caliber of people I share this place I call home with.

Derek R. Trumbo Sr., 40, is incarcerated at the Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, Kentucky, where he is serving 25 years for charges stemming from the sexual abuse of a child. He has maintained his innocence in court. He is a two-time winner of PEN writing awards for his plays, which have been performed in Australia, New York City, and Louisville, Kentucky. Although a current Northpoint Training Center inmate matched the name and description provided by the author, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Corrections did not respond by publication time to queries about the alleged assault and other violence recounted in this story.